Revisiting the ‘Age of the Twink’ and Its Complicated History

Revisiting the ‘Age of the Twink’ and Its Complicated History

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Gay descriptors like “bear” and “twink” have been around for years, yet only recently have they truly been adopted into the mainstream, with a particular spotlight flung onto the so-called “Age of the Twink” following the success of the controversial film Call Me By Your Name. But what is a twink? And what is the history of twink culture?

That Nick Haramis article for The New York Times proved to be controversial, opening up a wide discourse “ranging from derision from gay men who felt the term ‘twink’ had been appropriated, to those who questioned the author’s assertion that a slender frame somehow defies traditional masculinity.”

Because I am not a gay man, my opinion on whether type-casting straight men as twinks is inherently harmful is irrelevant, and belongs to perhaps a much broader discussion of how queerness, queer identity and queer love are treated and represented in mainstream media. However, I think it’s clear that the term is here to stay.

Though obviously predating the history of twink culture, did Michelangelo’s statue of David depict one of fine art’s first twinks?

But first, what is a twink? The word is so ingrained into our daily life that it even warrants its own Wikipedia page, where you’ll find this:

Twink is gay slang for a young man in his late teens to early twenties whose traits may include: general physical attractiveness; little to no body or facial hair; a slim to average build; and a youthful appearance that may belie an older chronological age.

But what is the history of twink? Where did it come from? Has it always meant the same thing? The exact origins of the word are disputed to this day, though it may be traced as far back as 1920s Britain. Nick Haramis writes:

Although the origin of the term has been disputed — some trace its history to ‘twank,’ 1920s British slang for a client of gay male prostitutes, while others insist it’s a vulgar riff on the cream-filled Hostess snack — twinks are young, attractive, hairless, slim men. There are several modern variations: Euro twinks (the boys of BelAmi, a Slovak pornography studio named after the novel by Guy de Maupassant), twunks (a portmanteau with hunk, embodied by modern-day Zac Efron) and femme twinks (like the fabulous American figure skater Adam Rippon).

In contrast, the Online Etymology Dictionary defines twink as a “young sexually attractive person” and dates its first recording as late as 1963.

Zac Efron is famed for his public transformation from “twink” to “twunk.”

And maybe Haramis’s points are all well and good — it’s human nature to want to categorize objects, events, and people by the molds they come in, and sexually speaking, many of us have “types” that we gravitate toward. But in that sense, “twink” — like “bear,” like “otter” — feels more clinical and therefore less harmful. It is simply a type of gay man that exists. Gay hookup apps even use the term to help users filter their search for the type of guy they’re looking to meet.

The discomfort, however, begins when we start to commodify and sensationalize certain body types over others. An article in Men’s Health recently wrote, “Of course, one could argue that categorizing youth, thinness and frequently whiteness as the new masculine idyll is just as conducive to body image issues in guys whose bodies don’t fit that mold. Similarly, transposing aesthetics from a subculture onto a broader audience without examining the nuances and potential pitfalls might also be deemed a fool’s errand.”

The history of twink is long, as is its relevance and place in queer culture. We have to ask ourselves whether these meanings are lost when the term is adopted into the heteronormative mainstream; and, if so, what types of connotations and impact replace them.

Were you familiar with this history of twink? Is your question what is a twink answered?

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